The Early Days of a Better Nation

Friday, April 02, 2004

The Passion of the Road Warrior

Last Christmas I updated a poem I'd written years ago for Mrs Early (a carol for Carol) and put it on Teresa's weblog:

One for the carpenter
Happy birthday to you,
Josh Davidson! Whoever you were, you
could never be nailed,
planed, sanded, dove-tailed
to cross or crib.
Joiner, leader, agitator, king;
teller and told in contrary
stories; healer with a sword -
here's a word in your ear:
I wish you Merry Christmas
and a Happy New Year.

Two thousand and three
candles and counting:
we can stop holding our breath:

you're not coming back.
But you're still here, walking
in writing on water,
in vexed texts talking
at cross purposes.

Against the rough
places, still not smooth,
the high places, still not low
still Mary's hand lights your candle: blow.
So much for the Son of Man. More immediately pressing is what we are to make of Mel Gibson. To my mind the most moving of the films in which he has starred was Conspiracy Theory. It was at some artistic remove about real events, the infamous project MK-Ultra, and it showed with compassion and respect the predicament of a paranoid with real enemies. I was disturbed to find, and damned if I'll link to it, that one of the more insightful reviews I happened across on the Web was by an anti-semitic dingbat and Holocaust denier. The next most powerful was Mad Max II, which in its attack on parasitic, decadent and barbaric exploiters can be glossed as Marxian or Randian and is in any case a hoot. Now, I haven't seen The Passion of the Christ, and I'm not exactly eager to, but I've read some reviews. There's the thoughtful Marxist analysis:
The narrow scope of The Passion of the Christ renders impossible any serious discussion of Jesus’ religious and social message. It also excludes the fact of his popularity with wide layers of the Jewish population in Jerusalem. After all, only a few days before his death, according to the Gospels, Jesus was welcomed to the city by jubilant crowds. Most accounts of the Passion begin with this triumphant entry.

Gibson’s work, on the other hand, opens with Jesus’ internal struggle the night before the crucifixion in the Garden of Gethsemane. Foreseeing what is to come, he asks God that the chalice might pass from him, adding, however, 'your will be done.' A sinister, androgynous Satan tempts and taunts him (he/she reappears throughout the film).

Jesus is arrested, through the treachery of his erstwhile disciple, Judas. Why do the armed men sent by the Jewish high priests take Jesus into custody at night? Gibson’s film never addresses the question, because a serious answer would have to take into account the officialdom's fear that the charismatic prophet’s detention might lead to popular protest.


But the film also attracts the genuinely oppressed, who are valiantly, often futilely trying to 'embrace their cross' of everyday life at this point. They take consolation in Jesus’ suffering as a means of coming to grips with their own. This is by no means an ignoble effort. This same response, however, has another, debilitating meaning, as an expression of the doctrine of passivity and resignation to one’s fate. These are people who largely have no insight yet into their own problems and circumstances.

The Passion of the Christ is a reprehensible work. Those who praise the film, or downplay its reactionary character, or remain silent for fear of drawing fire from the fundamentalist right, serve political reaction themselves.
There's the gonzo journalist response:
The Passion didn't make me want to kill any Jews, as promised. It just put me to sleep.
There's the (I guess) religious humanist critique, speaking in the name of humanity for the Man:
Did you really have to cast that talent-free pretty boy as me? Haven't we had enough soppy, doe-eyed saviors down the centuries? Especially since the poor kid has to act the entire movie with one eye shut.

Actually Mel, the Byzantine and Romanesque and Renaissance guys notwithstanding, I wasn't that pretty at all. Kind of short and dark and simian. Like Ben Stiller -- only funnier.

But, of course, what I actually looked like and said has never made much difference to people. It's a commonplace as old as the catacombs that everyone always remakes me in their own image; anyone who depicts me is actually painting a self-portrait. Even the guy who's writing this -- as he knows full well -- is giving me a certain non-Scriptural flavor to make his points stick. And it's not just writers and artists; everyone down the centuries and across the globe who believes in me, or has me deep in his or her heart ,or beside whom I walk, is really not walking with me at all but with an ideal of themselves, someone just like them but inconceivably better, a phony savior who cannot save them, with whom, poor things; they're locked forever in the cell of self.

You're no different, Mel. The Christ you flog and flay and strip the meat from, the one you chew the ears and lips of, the one you smash the nails through the helpless palms of --that's you, Mel. Because, for all the reasons that only you and I know, you hate yourself. Self-hatred drives you as it has driven so many self-flagellators and sunken-faced self-deniers, born-again, self-loathing sinners, washed in my blood, dripping with the precious blood that flowed from the bloody gash made in my side by the holy spear -- all those terrible and murderous images that sublimate the anger and savagery in their hearts. But self-hatred is still hatred, Mel, and the only thing I hate is hatred.

And then there's the shocker, God in the Hands of Angry Sinners:
Two thirds of religious conversions are gradual, the result of intellectual and emotional quest. Only a third are sudden. Conversions usually occur to adolescents, the sudden ones early in one's teens, the slower ones later. I thought of that when I noticed that much of the audience was young at the theater where I saw the film, and most of those who were standing in line for the next showing were also young - many of them teenagers.

It was young people who were especially responsive to [Jonathan] Edwards's first great awakening. But he soon found that their fervor cooled. Their separation from the unsaved was quietly abandoned. Their conversion had been triggered by hellfire. Gibson's unrelenting, unforgiving vision of punishment is similar. Edwards's theme was "Sinners in the hands of an angry God." Gibson gives us "God in the hands of angry sinners." Behind both these minatory visions stands a bloodthirsty Father, damning and punishing. It can be said in Gibson's defense that he was not narrowly anti-Semitic when he wanted to include the verse from Matthew 27.25. He sees vast hordes becoming subject to God's vengeance, to be carried off to hell. He offers equal opportunity damnation. Saint Augustine came to see that this view of a vengeful father was unworthy of God, and abandoned the "ransom" theory of Christ's death,[Saint Augustine, "Analysis of Some Theses in the Letter to the Romans 48."] the notion that the death of Christ was a price paid to God in order to bring about the redemption of humanity.
But that theological radicalism is not the shocker. It arrives farther down in the review, of another work entirely, but not unrelated to Gibson's:
The charges Renner and Berry wanted to investigate all told the same story, and all of them revolved around one man, the founder of the Legion, Marcial Maciel Degollado.


Among those clearing Maciel between 1956 and 1958 are some of the men now accusing him. They say they lied then because they were in thrall to the man. They had all entered the order young (two of them were ten), from families that thought priests could do no wrong. Each had won the charismatic Maciel's special favor, in a community where everyone competed for that honor. They were privileged by his revelations of great suffering (for which they injected him with Demerol), considered him a saint and oracle; they believed his assurances that their intimacy was spiritual and had been specifically exempted from prohibition by Pius XII's concern for Maciel's pain. Even after they left the Legion, they kept silent. Some thought they alone had been abused, and they would not be believed, even by their own relatives, some of whom were in the Legion or its lay arm, Regnum Christi.

The Legion says these are bitter conspirators, who want to destroy Maciel because they were not successful in the Legion and have waited half a century to get their revenge. But these are not the victims we became familiar with in some of the recent scandals— boys so scarred that their lives were ruined. This is not said to denigrate such victims—it would doubly victimize them not to see how much responsibility their abusers bear. Nonetheless, the men bringing the charges against Maciel have had successful professional lives, which they are ending honorably. They have had their troubles, as have all men who reach their later years. But they are not trying to blame someone else for personal failure. Moreover, they have never asked for money, or threatened a civil suit. Their complaints have gone through the proper canonical channels in the Church itself. The first of these went to Rome in 1976, through Bishop John Raymond McGann of the Catholic Diocese of Rockville Centre, Long Island.


But if the men are telling the truth, that raises a far more dismaying prospect. If they are right, if Maciel is in fact a pedophile protected by the Vatican itself, then there is a black hole at the center of the institutional Catholic Church.
If this is true, then, as the Road Warrior said in another of his incarnations:
'Somebody has to lift the scab...the festering scab that is the Vatican.'

If the Pope's Catholic, is Gibson a Protestant?


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